Kingston Land Trust hike reveals tension between capitalism and land stewardship


Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing,
God blessed America for me.
[This land was made for you and me.]

— Woody Guthrie
“This Land is Your Land”

An unimaginative platitude persists that money can’t buy happiness.

This is wrong. It can buy happiness for an hour. It can buy happiness for a night. It can even buy happiness for days in succession.

Assuming that one’s happiness is a mountain, money can buy the ropes and spikes, the rations and pitons, the jacket and the sleeping bag one will need to survive on the mountainside or up at the top, heaven forbid.

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The ability to be inspired by the mountain in the first place, however, is a matter of character, which is beyond the talent of money to imbue. Money can be classed as the accelerant, providing the wooden-stick frame for the dream to be pursued.
Personal character is the spark.

There is an understandable tension between foraging for love of one’s neighbor and foraging for money to realize one’s dream.
At the intersection of money and sincere character arrives the 501c3 nonprofit, which must carry the dream up the mountain like a bucket of water balanced on its head.

And beg for sparks.

How the land was saved
Over the past weekend, members of the Kingston Land Trust (KLT), in partnership with the Northeastern Cave Conservancy (NCC), put together a guided hike for anyone with a yen for nature’s beauty or a kink for making gracious donations to a non-profit focused on preserving that beauty.

The hike started out at the bottom of a large canyon, the defining natural feature of Wilbur. Unnatural features include lime kilns alongside the canyon road dating from the 1850s. Back when Wilbur was one of three adjacent villages yet to be combined to form the City of Kingston, this canyon was quarried for limestone and cement, which were processed in the kilns. Along with the bluestone, brickyards and coal industries, the three villages did brisk business up and down the Hudson River as a shipping entrepôt.

Those days are gone. Now fallen leaves swish about shin-deep as the intrepid visitors to the canyon, heedless of their age or physical condition, trudge up above and around six acres of protected forest. Over steep hills, along a scree-slope and through the remains of a limestone quarry, they clamber to summit somewhere over a blasted-rock locomotive tunnel for a bird’s eye view of the Rondout Creek below.

These six acres of forest acquired by the Kingston Land Trust provide habitat for numerous species of flora and fauna, red cedar and barred owl among them.

A sorry chapter of this rocky, sloping land played out in October 2019, when the previous landowner took it upon himself to clear-cut more than 200 trees without respect for the opinions of city officials nor the required permits. Before the city’s stop-work order could be issued, sugar maples and oaks were felled by the dozens, and hickories also, in the bark of which the Indiana bat, an endangered species, roosts.

With an overeager eye and the aid of several machines, the owner began to excavate his slope. Some days of heavy rain had saturated the ground. An excavating machine loses traction on the wet and muddy hill and tumbles down and away. Another excavator follows. One of these ends up out on the road, only days after the stop-work order was issued. Police attention was required.

And so it was, at least in part, that the concerns of Wilbur residents for this land were roused, fueling the KLT’s efforts in 2020 to acquire it.

The landowner was fined roughly a dollar and a quarter a tree.

As it is above, so it is below
Containing a large natural cave, an additional 8.2 acres of land contiguous with the six acres of KLT land was most recently acquired by the NCC. The concerns of these two non-profits frequently function in tandem.

To gain access to the caves, it is necessary to go over land. To gain access to the land, it is necessary the land be publicly accessible. To vouchsafe its enjoyment, it is necessary for both land and cave to be protected.

Bob Simmons, head of the NCC, stops short of referring to cave enthusiasts as troglodytes. He suggests “spelunkers” or “cavers.” As a younger man, an enthusiastic geologist and caver himself, he found himself involved with the NCC when the organization had only one cave to protect. As the years passed, more and more caves were acquired. Finally, the organization acquired Mr. Simmons as its president.

The 8.2 acres of land containing the cave was donated by a widowed resident of the Wilbur area, Valerie Conners, whose late husband expressed a wish for the adjoining lands to be protected. “This donation not only protects one of the more significant caves in Ulster County, which is Salamander Cave, but more than 1700 feet of limestone escarpment above the Rondout Creek as well,” said Simmons. “We look forward to working with the KLT to make these two contiguous properties into an amazing asset for Kingston.”

The word contiguous crops up again and again.

Protection in perpetuity
The NCC maintains a very slick Internet presence (as does the Kingston Land Trust). The NCC website and its Facebook page explain what a land trust does and contain web portals to its various projects.

Reading its online calendar and seeing events with titles like “Gathering in the Forest Sanctuary” and “Forest Sanctuary Fall Friday Planting,” one could be forgiven for imagining a gathering of unwashed hippies running amok in the wooded hinterlands. But this picture would be inaccurate. The pretext at work here in both these nonprofits has a distinctly puritanical flavor. There must be hard work.

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Volunteerism may appear a strange bedfellow to the classical ethos of capitalism. The compensation gained for the individual’s efforts often remains invisible. Even so, there is a well-known spike in the reward chemicals of the brain. One provisions a sort of interior larder with “good and moral” acts. So much so that those too busy, too lazy or otherwise too disinterested to volunteer are sometimes left feeling guilty and judged.

“Exactly,” says Richard Hawes, who drives a panel truck for a living. “I don’t think I have anything to feel guilty for, but it’s like, you know, someone’s out there picking up trash on the sidewalk — sure I’d like to stop and help out but I’ve got things to do, man. I’m hustling.”

Ironic. It’s the opposite effect to the example of volunteering seeks to inspire.

At the intersection between uninspired yet sincere character and good works, the 501c3 nonprofit appears. In Section(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code are three types of organizations eligible for the designation of nonprofit status: charitable organizations, churches and private foundations. If one must insist on concentrating all one’s efforts towards airy-fairy ends with no coin profit expected at the end of the day, say, that of gaining entrance to a golden city in the afterlife, or attempting to preserve pristine forests in this one, then one’s efforts must be protected from the tax agent’s tithe or risk seeing one’s efforts ending in insolvency.

The benefit of gaining non-profit status is tax exemption. Individuals who donate to public charity qualify for certain deductions which have the effect of lowering taxable income. Through the cunning use of a tax loophole, capitalism has set out a plate at the feasting table for charity, after all. The only catch is that an organization is required to remain true to its founding purpose.

So it must be that whatever else to which it may aspire, the Northeastern Cave Conservancy will have to continue collecting and protecting caves in perpetuity.

Troglodytes rejoice.

The business of fundraising
After lording it over the view of the Rondout, the hill climbers were led back down to the bottom of the canyon, where the road winds alongside the Wiltwyck Creek, though there is no sidewalk and the cars pass close and quickly. They were led to a private home, and around back out in the open air, along a high stone wall, to hear the pitches of sincerely interested parties. Another six acres adjacent to the other two lots was set to be acquired. There were donations to be hustled.

A fire burned in a grated wrought-iron metal ball. Strings of lights hung overhead. Attendees affiliated in some way with the fundraiser wore paper name badges which continually came unstuck and fell to the stone patio. Each time they stooped and picked them back up.

Conservation and stewardship manager for the KLT Greg Shaheen spoke at length about the strategy of the organization.

“There is a social significance in the use of land,” he said. “As we steward the land, it sustains us, and as we move to create and improve green spaces we are not necessarily operating under the assumption that more land is better. Accessibility is more important than quantity. How do you make the land we do have accessible to those who don’t have a car, for instance? This land is theirs, too, and so by acquiring theses contiguous parcels, there is a corridor of access growing through the entire city, increasing the access to all.”

A lifelong resident of Ulster County, Shaheen moved to Kingston from Kerhonkson almost four years ago to join the KLT. He was attracted to its philosophy of land as a vital expression of societal equity.

And while Shaheen is wary of garden parties, equity has much to do with building community relationships. And so fundraisers too have their role to play. “Land for all, and all for land,” he says.

He brightens noticeably when describing the land trust’s efforts in land matching, where citizens with private land are matched with green-thumbed neighbors to plant and harvest gardens. He draws attention to the philosophy of local artist Tyler Borchert, whose creations of stone and wood are to be auctioned off for the benefit of the occasion.

Mr. Borchert has a habit of creating sculptures out of stone and wood wherever he finds it. A ten-foot-tall teardrop-shaped arch he constructed out of bluestone on the banks of the Hudson River made him the unhappy recipient of attention by the Kingston Department of Parks and Recreation.

The artist was fined nearly two dollars a stone.

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